Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Classics Salon - Character You Relate To

Saari at Mangoes and Cherry Blossoms is hosting a weekly Classics Salon wherein participants chat about the classic works of literature we are currently reading.  She posts a discussion prompt, and for this, the 2nd week, her prompt is:

If you could be any character in the current classic you are reading (or in the last classic you read) who would you be and why? In other words, tell us something about any character you find yourself relating to or empathising or sympathising with. 

Since I'm reading two classics at the moment, Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, I'll respond with thoughts on both books. Framley Parsonage - the heroine, Lucy Robards, definitely is the most attractive character of the lot.  She is quietly witty, keeps her own counsel, feels deeply, tries to do what is right and just, is loyal and interesting.  I'm not sure that I empathize with her as much as I admire her, but there's a lot there to like.  By contrast, her sister-in-law, Fanny Robards, has many of the same qualities but indulges in hero worship more than is wise, at least with regards to her relationship to Lady Lufton, her husband's patroness.  I'm finally starting to see the Pride and Prejudice connection with Framley Parsonage, with Mark Robards as Mr. Collins, though without being the writhing buffoon that Collins is, and Fanny as the practical Charlotte Collins, Lady Lufton as the overbearing patroness, Lady Catherine, dear Lucy in the role of Elizabeth Bennet, and Lord Lufton as love-sick Mr. Darcy.

Lord Lufton and Lucy Robards
Now, on to David Copperfield - I can't say I particularly empathize with David, though I enjoy his journey to maturity and root for him heartily.  I'm neither a Clara Copperfield, nor an Agnes Wickfield, nor a Dora Spenlow, and I hope I'm not an Aunt Betsey.  I can't imagine rejecting a nephew because he wasn't a niece, nor do I think donkeys are plagues upon respectable people, but her generosity and embrace of the disenfranchised, both David and Mr. Dick, make her wonderful in my eyes.  I suppose the character to whom I can connect most on a personal level is dear Peggotty, David's nurse and lifelong friend.  All she really wants is a comfortable home and a quiet, purposeful life.  She values her family and is fierce in her protection of them and her friends, whom she makes into family.  

Aunt Betsey and Peggotty

Monday, April 13, 2015

Life After Life

Two covers - I read the one on the left, but prefer the one on the right.

I read Kate Atchison's Life After Life with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read Alongs group.  It's not a book that was on my TBR list nor radar, but I am so glad that it was selected and that I found the time to read it.

I am a big fan of time-travel books, and have loved this notion for as long as I can remember. Life After Life is time-travel with what was to me a unique twist.  Actually the premise is really akin to that of the Groundhog Day movie in that the protagonist, Ursula Todd, repeatedly dies and is reborn on the same day in February 1910 and to the same parents in the same place in England.

Sometimes she lives for a number of years, sometimes decades, and sometimes she dies shortly after birth.   Over time she starts to remember previous lives--not completely or mostly even consciously, especially at first, but more in a deja-vu sort of way.  She develops an instinct for avoiding the circumstances that ended her life previously, and so is able to chart the course of her life to some degree, although she cannot control all the variables, and sometimes avoiding one situation either makes no difference or actually causes something else to happen with similar or worse consequences.

Ursula lives through (sometimes) WWI as a young child, the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, the rise of fascism, and WWII (that's a particularly deadly time for her!).  She has a couple of brothers, a wonderful sister, friends, lovers, parents, and employers.  Some people she encounters in every life, some are only present in certain threads.

This is a terrific premise, and Atchison did a masterful job in creating a narrative arc that incorporated the multiple threads of the same life being lived repeatedly but with variation.  I was fascinated by both Ursula's lives and how Atchison handled this very difficult narrative.

There were a few confusing elements--it really helped to have a weekly session in which I could discuss my thoughts and debate certain plot points with others reading the book (i.e., great book club book!)--but overall this book really gave me a lot to think about, such as how much does one specific reaction or event affect the overall course of your life and that of others.  If I had the chance to "do it over," what would I actually try to do differently?

It was interesting to compare this book to Stephen King's 11/22/63, in which the time-travelling protagonist consciously sets out to change the course of history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Ursula does not try to repeat her lives--she doesn't have control over the fact that she is reliving her life--but she does try to change things, once she realizes, however vaguely, that she can.

I couldn't help but see a moral or spiritual  lesson in Life After Life.  On the one hand, it seemed to boil down to the notion "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," but I also thought there was a sense of being on the path to nirvana through self-awareness and then self-sacrifice.  My interpretation of Ursula as she matured through living her life multiple times was that initially the changes she made were to make her life better, but later the changes were to make the lives of her family and friends better, and then finally to make the world a better, safer place.  Like just about everything in this book, though, this is open to interpretation.

As you can tell, this is not a cut-and-dry novel.  No real wrapping up of loose ends.  Certainly no closure.  But, a well-written, creative, thought-provoking story that I found very satisfying despite its ambiguity.

I'm eager to read more by this author, and already got a copy of Case Histories, from 2004.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Classics Salon: First impressions of current classic

Saari at Mangoes and Cherry Blossoms is hosting a monthly Classics Salon wherein participants chat about the classic works of literature we are currently reading.  She posts a discussion prompt, and this month (her inaugural month of the Salon) is:

What are your first impressions of the current classic you are reading?

I'm about a third of the way into David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, and three chapters into Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope.

This is my third or possibly fourth time reading DC, but it's been >30 years since I last read it, so while I remember the basic story arc and most of the characters, there are plenty of scenes and situations and descriptions that I certainly don't remember.  I have to say I am falling in love with the book all over again.  Since my last reading of DC, I've read quite a few other Victorian novels, including a fair number of Dickens' other novels, and it's really shining through as a masterpiece.  It is tighter than most, although still long, and it rambles less than the others, with nary an extraneous scene that doesn't relate to David's personal journey.  

I'm reading this on a strict  three chapters a week schedule, and I'm quite amazed at how many memorable scenes are packed into these three chapter segments.  Dickens really moved David along in his journey to manhood at a reasonable pace (okay it did take 300 pages, but still, that's only a third of the book!).  It's like each segment of his life is a novella with its own cast of characters and story arc, and then he moves on.  

On the other hand, I'm not sure what to think about Framley Parsonage yet.  I'm still meeting everyone and trying to remember who's who from the previous Barsetshire novels.  The Bishop and Mrs. Proudie have already made their appearance.  I'm actually not even sure that Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley, is the protagonist as he marries within the first chapter, and my expectation was that this was a P&P-esque novel, so who are the characters who become couples?

My biggest problem with Trollope is that once I finish reading one of his novels I can never remember the names of his characters or their defining characteristics, with a few exceptions.  I'm really trying to pay attention early on but I've met so many characters in just the first three chapters that I feel I need to resort to a Wikipedia article to review who's who.

I like Trollope's novels when I'm reading them, but they (the characters and their fate) just don't seem to stick.  Not the way the Micawbers, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Peggotty, Mr. Murdstone, Mr. Dick and Aunt Betsey (all from DC) do.  I'm rereading David Copperfield decades since I last visited them, and I remember all of them pretty clearly.

I think I'm going to enjoy this monthly Classics Salon.  Hey all you classics readers out there, care to join us?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros - The Guns of August

Diane, the Bibliophile By The Sea, hosts one of my favorite memes, First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros. It's a great way to get a taste of a lot of different books by authors you may not have tried yet.

Here is the marvelous opening to Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Guns of August, which details the first stage of World War I.  This paragraph describes the 1910 funeral of Edward VII, which brought together all the leaders of Europe and beyond who four years later unleashed their dogs of war.
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens--four dowager and three regnant--and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
Tuchman is marvelous at describing the political and economic forces as well as the personalities of the leaders and their staffs.  She is opinionated, biased, and makes her subject understandable and compelling.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Risi e Bisi - Spring, Venetian Style

A few years ago I was reading Friends in High Places, a Guido Brunetti mystery by Donna Leon, and I came across these lines...

She was in the kitchen when he came in, seated at the table, shelling peas. 
"Risi e bisi," he said by way of greeting when he saw the peas, the irises held out in front of him.
Smiling at the sight of the flowers, she said, "It's the best thing to do with peas, isn't it, make risotto?" and raised her cheek to receive his kiss.

If Guido and Paola Brunetti weren't already one of my all-time favorite fictional couples, this scene would have sealed it.  I immediately looked up Risi e Bisi and found the recipe below and a bit of info on the dish.

I try to make it every spring because I love Venice (maybe really going there this October), I love peas, I love making soup, and I love being connected to a cultural tradition.

This dish is considered by the Italians as a soup, but it is even thicker than most Italian thick soups. It is a specialty of Venice and said to have been served to the Doges of Venice at banquets to celebrate the feast of St. Mark. As with all traditional dishes, there are several versions. It is eaten with a fork, not a spoon, and basically should be rice with a green motif.

Risi e bisi (Rice and Peas)

3 cups shelled green peas 
3 T butter 
2 1/2 T olive oil
2/3 cups diced lean bacon
1 green onion, sliced  
10 cups chicken stock
1 2/3 cup rice  
salt to taste
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
2-3 sprigs parsley

Heat the butter and oil together in a large pan, and gently saute the bacon and onion. When the bacon is brown, add the peas and moisten with a few tablespoons of the stock. Cook gently for 15 minutes. Add the rest of the stock, which must be hot, and bring it to the boil. Pour in the rice, stir well, lower the heat and cook gently for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender and still fairly moist. Add salt if necessary, and sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese and parsley.
Serves 4 to 6.

Buon Appetito!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dombey and Son

I've been putting off writing a post about the most recent Dickens novel that I finished, Dombey and Son, because I can't figure out what I want to say about it.  This is one of those "leap-of-faith" posts where you sit down and start typing and hope that something coherent emerges.

Overall impression - I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, although it is not my favorite Dickens of the ones I've read so far.  It's not as good as A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Dorrit, or David Copperfield, which I'm currently rereading.  But, it's infinitely better than Hard Times, which I disliked.  I think it's really a 4-star book, but the Dickens name counts for a star on its own, I suppose.

The best place to begin with a Dickens book is the characters--he was brilliant at populating his books with an extraordinary number of well-drawn, interesting characters.  My biggest problem with the book is that I don't think Mr. Dombey was a convincing character.  I loathed him, which as a reader, I was meant to do.  But, I never really got why he shunned his sweet daughter, Florence, until it was almost too late.  I know that he was disappointed that she wasn't a thriving boy, ready to step into the role of son and heir, but that wasn't enough to explain to me why he couldn't get over it.  I really think Dickens should've given us Mr. Dombey's backstory.  We get to meet his sister, Louisa Chick, but their relationship tells me nothing about the forces that shaped him into who he was.

I loved Florence, and was absolutely thrilled that Dickens didn't kill her off as he seemed threatening to do with some red-herring foreshadowing. Maybe he meant to, but since this was a serialized work, he could have changed his mind after tossing out some hints that she was as fragile in health as her brother, Paul.  

Speaking of Paul, I went into the book thinking that he made it to adulthood, and I was pretty disappointed that he died before he could convince his father than money was a means and not an end.  He was a sweetie, though, and his deathbed scene was all that I expected of Dickens, whose pathetic scenes are the stuff of legends.

Edith Granger was another character that I never really got.  As with Mr. Dombey, I understand that she hated being in the role of being auctioned off to the highest bidder in marriage market, but for the life of me, I don't get why she didn't tell her mother to back off.  While Mrs. Skewton was a money-grubber, Edith was no door mat and could have managed her.  Again, more of Edith's backstory would have been helpful.

James Carker was a wonderful villain--I liked seeing him as a prototype for Uriah Heep insofar as he was also an underling who ingratiated his way into controlling the firm.  Carker's white teeth were extremely creepy and terribly effective as a way of encapsulating Carker.  Again, I wanted details about his relationship to Alice.  Did he seduce her?  And what were the details of brother John's transgression?  It's amazing that in a book this long, there were so many unanswered questions.  I loved their sister, Harriet, and wished I knew more about her.

Captain Cuttle, Major Bagstock, Rob the Grinder (what is a grinder, anyway?), Polly, Walter and his uncle, Susan Nipper, and Mr. Toots were all wonderful characters and I enjoyed spending time with all of them.

My conclusion is that Dombey and Son was a bit of a proving ground for a lot of what came to perfection in David Copperfield.  Their plots are very different but some themes are similar--make-shift families, surrogate parents, for example.

Dombey and Son fulfills the category of "A Very Long Classic Novel" in my 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Top Ten Books on my Spring Reading List

I am currently reading 5 books but haven't finished anything recently, so no fodder for posts, so I was thrilled when I discovered that today's Top Ten Tuesday theme (at The Broke and the Bookish) was about books we are excited about reading this spring.

Turns out, my reading lists are about to being thrown out the window because there a so many great books that just appeared on my horizon that I am very excited to read.

1.  Girl on a Train - I am planning to listen to this using a library copy, which means it might actually be Fall before my turn comes, but I am eager to read it.

2.  Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - I really enjoy Erik Larson's books and since I am currently reading a lot about WWI, the timing on this couldn't be better.

3.  The Buried Giant - I'm a new Kazuo Ishiguro fan, having only fairly recently read Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and this latest novel sounds intriguing and I know the writing will blow me away...as usual.

4.  Emma: A Modern Retelling - I have mixed feelings about the quality of the novels that have emerged from the Austen Project (i.e., modern retellings of Austen's 6 novels by well-known novelists), but I like Alexander McCall Smith and I like Edinburgh and I love Emma and I'm hopeful that he has done right by Austen and her Emma.

5.  My Brilliant Friend - I always seem to be planning a trip to Italy, but whether I actually get there or not, I love to read about Italy.  This is the first novel in Elena Ferrante's trilogy about life in modern Italy.

6. Bring Up the Bodies - Wolf Hall is about to start on PBS and it's high time I read Hilary Mantel's sequel, which has been languishing on my TBR shelf for far too long.

7.  Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall - in keeping with letting the PBS broadcast schedule serve as an impetus to read, I am excited to read this first book in a series by Winston Graham.  It premieres in June, so I just might get to it!

8.  As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of 'The Princess Bride' - my husband received this Cary Elwes memoir for Christmas and it's just the kind of fun book that spring reading calls for.

9.  Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais, A Ritual Walk - I love walking and I love the Bay Area, and I would like to go on one of the ritual walks around it.  My brother has done this a couple of times and lent me this book so that I can get inspired to put it on the calendar.

10.  Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women - I've had this non-fiction book by Jenny Hartley for awhile now, but since I've been reading a lot of Dickens lately, I'm reenergized to read it.

What are your spring reading plans?

Monday, March 09, 2015

Travelogue: San Francisco

We visited our daughter in San Francisco over the weekend to see her in Stop Kiss, an amazing play performed by the A.C.T (i.e., American Conservatory Theatre) Fellows.  But before we saw the play Saturday night, we did a little sightseeing.

First stop was Muir Woods National Monument, just north of the city in gorgeous Marin County.  We did a wonderful 5.5 mile hike—half along the floor of the valley gazing up at towering redwoods, and the other half elevated above the floor but still dwarfed by these magnificent trees.   Signs throughout the park request visitors to be quiet, and the grove really does impart a sacred feeling. 

After our hike we headed down to Stinson Beach where we had a wonderful lunch at the Parkside Café (both the fish tacos and crab cakes were sublime) before heading out to walk along the beach and sun ourselves, like seals, on the rocks.  We were blessed with beautiful clear blue skies and warm weather with just a soft sea breeze.  Heavenly.

Saturday took us to the Farmer’s Market and then Fisherman’s Wharf for taking pictures of all the sailboats jockeying for position under the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the afternoon we headed to South Beach to see the tall ships, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, which were docked at Pier 40.  We chatted with the crews and watched Lady Washington cast off with a deck full of tourists for a spin around the SF Bay.  If you are interested in the schedule of these beautiful ships, visit Historical Seaport.

We finished up Sunday with a stroll through Golden Gate Park--birdwatching, peoplewatching, and enjoying the wonderful warm sun and first flowers of spring before we headed to the airport and home.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Travel as a Political Act

I love Rick Steves' travel shows on PBS and have a couple of his destination books, but the one that caught my eye a few years ago and then languished on the TBR shelf was Travel as a Political Act.  I read it in February, finally, as part of my TBR Pile Challenge, and it was as good as I anticipated.

The basic premise is a very logical thought--the more we know first-hand about other peoples, countries, and cultures, the more likely we are to understand them, empathize with them, and find a way to live together on this tiny planet more peaceably.  By traveling and meeting real people, not just staying with the people in your tour group, we can overcome much of the media-produced fear of those whose skin color, religious practices, and priorities differ from ours.

With Steves as tour guide, the reader can visit Yugoslavia, "After the War," El Salvador, Denmark (those highly taxed but notoriously content Europeans), Turkey and Morocco (for a look at secular Islam), and Iran. The chapter on Iran was my absolute favorite--Steves was asked to do a travel show on Iran and he had to overcome his personal fears in order to do his job. I learned so much about the country of Iran and its people--this chapter alone makes the book worth getting, although I don't mean to disparage any of the rest of it!

Steves also weighs in on how various countries deal with drug problems, comparing our "war on drugs" to an alternative that legalizes possession but then emphasizes treatment.

I'll be upfront that my political leanings are pretty much aligned with Steves so nothing he advocated offended or shocked me. Reading Travel as a Political Act has resparked my flame to do more than arm-chair travel, especially to places that are more foreign than comfortable, more different than not.

For more info, visit Steves website, which has a section on Philanthropy and Social Activism, and which provides more insights into his thoughts on meaningful travel.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Starvation Heights

Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen is a narrative non-fiction  thriller (i.e., reads like a novel, based on a true story--you know, the genre Truman Capote invented with In Cold Blood) and was a chilling account of quack medicine that kills, circa 1911.

The book is about the arrest and trial of Linda Burfield Hazzard, a woman who called herself a doctor although she had no medical degrees but was issued a license by the state of Washington to practice osteopathy.  Her specialty was fasting her patients to health at her sanitarium in Ollala, WA, which she dubbed Wilderness Heights, but which became known as Starvation Heights.

Many of her patients fasted for 40 or more days, only taking asparagus or tomato-based liquids. Many of these patients died--more than 40, in fact.  Among these was a young Australian woman, Claire Williamson, who also happened to be an heiress. Claire's sister, Dora, survived the fasting treatment with the help of her former nanny, and together the two got the British consul to pressure the local authorities in Washington state to prosecute Hazzard for Claire's murder.

The subject was absolutely fascinating--I love learning about historical cases and since I have visited the Puget Sound area quite a bit over the past four years, I felt somewhat familiar with the landscape.  The book portrayed a wonderfully complex set of characters, from the wacko "Dr." Hazzard to her alcoholic lapdog of a husband, Sam, a variety of nurses and handymen who worked for her, the Williamson sisters, the British Vice Consul Lucien Agassiz, and a host of others.

The book was a pretty fast read, with the focus on the Williamson case interrupted occasionally for some backstory on the Hazzards--Sam was a bigamist, for which he spent time in prison--and some recollections of Ollala residents about the infamous fasting doctor who lived up the hill from them.

I confess I struggled a bit with Olsen's style--he is a true crime writer and tends to overuse metaphors and similes, and resorts to sensationalism more than I care for.  I won't say it's the best-written book I've ever read, but it was certainly interesting and the narrative related to the trial itself was riveting.

For more on the book, visit StarvationHeights.com and be sure to take a look at the pictures.  Just incredible!

I read this book with the GoodReads TuesBookTalkRead-a-Longs group.  The next book we're reading is Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.